top of page

5 Steps of Becoming Upset

Photo of girl having tantrum at outdoor cafe. © Katherine Broadway| Raleigh Psychotherapy helps you understand becoming upset

Don’t we all want a better handle on our emotions? However, at times you are not able to make that choice to behave like you want and you end up feeling badly about yourself. You can learn skills to help you handle emotional situations differently.

It may feel random, but there is a specific process involved in getting upset. As you learn to recognize the signs, you will begin to know where you are in the process.

The main way to control your emotions is to stop the process before your feelings get too intense.

Let’s look at how emotions escalate by using the example of a father getting his preschool daughter ready for school. It usually ends with him getting angry and yelling, and her crying.


1. You have something that is important to you, and it could be coming under attack. Whether it is a desire, a preference or a goal, when something or someone appears to threaten what you hold dear, an emotional cycle begins.

The father in our example has a goal of getting his daughter to school on time, and feels the goal is threatened because they are habitually late.

2. An undesired event occurs, the attack on your cherished goal becomes real, and you become scared.

In our example, the daughter would rather play than follow directions. The father becomes anxious because time is running short.

3. Anxiety and fear create anger. Because your emotions are elevated, you decide this is a negative event. Many, many times this happens before you can think. Your survival instincts activate.

For our father, he decides she is not going to follow directions, so he repeats himself louder.

4. This is the point where old attitudes or beliefs about the event come into play. The current feelings merge with past feelings. This multiplies the intensity of your emotions far beyond what is happening at the moment.

Unknown to the father, he is repeating a belief from his childhood: children must do what they are told the first time regardless of how they feel.

5. At this point, your emotions are intense. Your brain is flooded with neurochemicals. You are having a hard time thinking rationally.

The father shows anger to cover the anxiety he feels about not being able to control his daughter. He is unable to slow down and find a different way to resolve the situation.

Because your brain is overloaded with neurochemicals and intense emotions, it becomes difficult to remember how you want to behave and react. Instead, you default to your unconscious survival mechanisms. That leaves you feeling disappointed and ashamed of how you behaved.

The father gets angry and yells. His daughter cries. He goes to work feeling like a bad father.

Your desire to not react and behave badly to emotional intensity can happen. Knowing about these steps can lead you to the awareness of where you are in the process. You will then begin to be able to take steps to stop the process and calm down.

Next week, I will talk about ways you can begin to move in the direction of mastering your feelings. This will enable you to have a better chance of stopping yourself before you react.

bottom of page